Iraq's Twilight of the Idols

The iconoclastic frenzy of religious extremists in the Middle East is part of a long tradition in the region – with key differences.

Originally published in Fortean Times 326.

The adage that the history of art is also the history of iconoclasm is being confirmed with aplomb by Iraqi Islamic State militants (ISIL / ISIS) in their widening offensive on ancient and religious sites they deem idolatrous. Since seizing control of the northern city Mosul in June 2014, the militants have blown-up and bulldozed scores of district churches, mosques, shrines and tombs in an iconoclastic rampage, the scale of which perhaps not seen since the Beeldenstorm riots against Catholic art across 16th century Europe.

         Gone is the tomb of the medieval scholar Ali ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) who wrote an important history of the Crusades, along with traditional tombs of saints such as St. George, and the prophets Daniel and Seth. Gone too in Mosul is a shrine of the Biblical Jonah[1.], ISIL succeeding at what Austin Henry Layard had wanted to do in order to excavate the palace underneath it. The prophet who in the eponymous book spent three days inside the "big fish" predicted the fall of Ninevah, a city whose three-thousand year history ended with its sack and razing by Assyria's former vassals in 612 BC. Attempting to finish the job, ISIL bombed the Ninevah Wall in January (and burned Mosul's library), before turning their hammers -- and video cameras -- on Assyrian stone sculptures at the Mosul Museum at the end of February. Lamassu, protective winged deities from Ninevah and Nimrud, and a mix of replica and original reliefs, and statues were toppled and hacked.[2.] Days later, ISIL took their bulldozers southeast of Mosul to flatten Nimrud, the Assyrian capital from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC).[3.]

Palmyra, Syria, isil, isis, iconoclasm, fortea
The militants have blown-up and bulldozed scores of district churches, mosques, shrines and tombs in an iconoclastic rampage, the scale of which perhaps not seen since the Beeldenstorm riots against Catholic art across 16th century Europe.
Palmyra Syria

 The safekeeping of Assyrian sculptures in museums in Europe and the United States means a potentially more catastrophic legacy of ISIL's renewed focus on iconoclasm has been sustained by the melting-pot culture of Hatra. This two-millennia old Parthian frontier city fused Greek, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern traditions in its art and architecture, resisting Roman assaults before falling to the Sassanian Empire in 241. The breaking of at least four statues of the kings of Hatra (one the finest example known) in the most notorious sequence of the ISIL museum video involving sledgehammering, represent fifteen percent of all such statues from Hatra, a loss that is especially bad since the art of this culture is hardly studied and all of its works have remained in Iraq.[4.] The razing of Hatra itself was reported on March 7, and on March 9 the pre-Ninevah capital of the Assyriansl, Dur-Sharrukin, the "Fortress of Sargon" (modern Khorsabad) is also said to be receiving the same treatment at time of writing. After the desecration of Mosul Museum, caught on tape like a demented light entertainment show, now gone viral, the razing of the culminating monuments of the two thousand year Assyrian Empire seem almost an afterthought. And as such, even more grotesque and banal.

            Images and texts were commonly destroyed in the earliest phases of Mesopotamian history. One such event is prominent in the earliest well-documented historical episode, the Lagash-Umma conflict over a bordering tract of fertile land in c. 2500 BC. The border was demarcated by inscribed stelea which the ruler of Umma smashed before marching on Lagash. The decapitation and cutting-down of statues thereafter became 'normal' Mesopotamian practice. Of the few surviving divine statues from Mesopotamia every one has suffered intentional damage. The Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur describes the demolition of the statue of the goddess Nin-e'iga, pruned of her divine horns then "seated in the dust".[5.] Along with the destruction of images and names came curses to protect against such assaults, which by the time of Sargon of Akkad (c. 2334 BC-2279 BC) threaten the destroyer and their children ("whoever tears out this inscription, may Shamash uproot his foundations and pluck out his progeny!").[6.] Protective curses became progressively more elaborate into the Old Babylonian period. The history of war is also the history of iconoclasm, and of curse magic.

Images and texts were commonly destroyed in the earliest phases of Mesopotamian history. One such event is prominent in the earliest well-documented historical episode.

 The safekeeping of Assyrian sculptures in museums in Europe and the United States means a potentially more catastrophic legacy of ISIL's renewed focus on iconoclasm has been sustained by the melting-pot culture of Hatra. This two-millennia old Parthian frontier city fused Greek, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern traditions in its art and architecture, resisting Roman assaults before falling to the Sassanian Empire in 241. The breaking of at least four statues of the kings of Hatra (one the finest example known) in the most notorious sequence of the ISIL museum video involving sledgehammering, represent fifteen percent of all such statues from Hatra, a loss that is especially bad since the art of this culture is hardly studied and all of its works have remained in Iraq.[4.] The razing of Hatra itself was reported on March 7, and on March 9 the pre-Ninevah capital of the Assyriansl, Dur-Sharrukin, the "Fortress of Sargon" (modern Khorsabad) is also said to be receiving the same treatment at time of writing. After the desecration of Mosul Museum, caught on tape like a demented light entertainment show, now gone viral, the razing of the culminating monuments of the two thousand year Assyrian Empire seem almost an afterthought. And as such, even more grotesque and banal.

            Images and texts were commonly destroyed in the earliest phases of Mesopotamian history. One such event is prominent in the earliest well-documented historical episode, the Lagash-Umma conflict over a bordering tract of fertile land in c. 2500 BC. The border was demarcated by inscribed stelea which the ruler of Umma smashed before marching on Lagash. The decapitation and cutting-down of statues thereafter became 'normal' Mesopotamian practice. Of the few surviving divine statues from Mesopotamia every one has suffered intentional damage. The Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur describes the demolition of the statue of the goddess Nin-e'iga, pruned of her divine horns then "seated in the dust".[5.] Along with the destruction of images and names came curses to protect against such assaults, which by the time of Sargon of Akkad (c. 2334 BC-2279 BC) threaten the destroyer and their children ("whoever tears out this inscription, may Shamash uproot his foundations and pluck out his progeny!").[6.] Protective curses became progressively more elaborate into the Old Babylonian period. The history of war is also the history of iconoclasm, and of curse magic.

ziggurat, iraq, isil, isis, iconoclasm, destruction, mesopotamia

The history of iconoclasm itself is much deeper than recorded history, extending back more than nine thousand years even to the inception of agriculture and organised cultic practice on a large scale.

Palmyra, Syria, isis, isil, iconoclasm, destruction

This minor act of vandalism may be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle of what actually happened in Göbekli's final decades.

malta, tarxien

Tarxien

 The history of iconoclasm itself is much deeper than recorded history, extending back more than nine thousand years even to the inception of agriculture and organised cultic practice on a large scale. Evidence for what is possibly the first major iconoclastic event in human history, comes from a major cultural complex in southeastern Turkey, what I tentatively term the Şanlıurfa-Çayönü culture. Its major hub was the extraordinary megalithic site of Göbekli Tepe, where hunters and artisans erected totems and pillars from around 9500 BC. Over the span of about two millennia, Göbekli Tepe and its satellite sanctuaries (including another major site at Nevalı Çori in the foothills of the Taurus mountains) developed a culture where wild and dangerous animals, especially vultures and snakes, were carved into the pillars. Vultures were already a long-established feature of shamanism in the region. However, the overriding iconography of the incipient Şanlıurfa culture which orbited around Göbekli Tepe, strongly suggests that an shamanistic elite who closely identified themselves with snakes gained control of regional trade, most lucratively in obsidian. Building on traditional shamanism, this emergent 'snake priesthood' instigated megalithic sanctuaries where cultic rituals centered on hunting and shamanism, as well as trade, and artisanship flourished. This further contributing to the power of the elite who developed their control of the regions trade and built up a cultural ideology that soon overrode the trust and esteem previously invested in 'great bird' shamanism. Even though Göbekli Tepe underwent a slow decline almost from the outset, its megalithic enclosures shrinking over centuries, the culture survived for around two thousand years until around 7400 BC when the site, and those of its satellite communities where similar carved pillars stood, started to be backfilled, deliberately wiped from the face of the earth in highly organised, large scale iconoclasm. My research into this makes me wonder if the massive effort going into the building of these sites; the terrible hardships being suffered by those attempting to get a foothold in agriculture at exactly the same time; and the human sacrifices happening at the related site of Çayönü, where revolts and conflagration occurred around 7200 BC; are some of the factors contributing to an uprising that rejected the prevailing ideology, causing a total (though not immediate) cultural collapse. Just how significant is it that the only example of 'unsanctioned' folk art found at Göbekli Tepe so far is the graffito of a woman giving birth, incised at the base of a pillar?[7.] Added to the rest of the evidence, this minor act of vandalism may be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle of what actually happened in Göbekli's final decades.

            Similar circumstances leading to major iconoclasm happened again in Malta, only much later. By the third millennium BC, a theocracy with an ideology possibly tracing back to the complex proto-civilisation of the Danube heartlands ('Old Europe'), developed a fertility culture with megalithic monumental imagery and an emphasis on community and extravagant feasting. After 2450 BC someone was so displeased with the state of affairs that the temple culture collapsed, violently. At Brochtorff Xaghra Circle on Gozo and Tarxien temple, structures were dismantled and abandoned, statuettes of prestigious figures smashed and thrown about. The large "fat lady" statue at Tarxien, with her top half missing, shows a determined attempt at obliteration. Either slow or rapid, the demise was total, and the archaeology suggests a populous and over-exploited environment leading to poor diet in which the system "ceased to be seductive or believable." [8.]

So concerned are they with publicising their efforts, the iconoclasts of Mosul are inadvertently perpetuating their targets in memory.

 Other iconoclasms are doubly perplexing, like the fate of the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) statue menhirs of Lunigiana in northern Italy, decapitated in the Early Iron Age in a mysterious social upheaval [9.]. The menhirs of Champagne-sur-Oise in northern France, toppled and slashed in the Late Neolithic.[10.] Or on the Aegean island of Keros where thousands of broken figurines were deposited between 2800-2300 BC, mostly fragmented somewhere else, and the missing pieces not traced to any Cycladic island.[11.] Seen through the lens of archaeology, the 'baddies' in Indo-European mythology and folklore, the monsters and giants, seem increasingly like the targets of a great concerted effort of defamation and disfiguration. The once beautiful are made hideous; the most violent warrior-chiefs deified; the wise women and giants made into cannibals and child-snatchers... Iconoclasms hidden in plain sight.

       So concerned are they with publicising their efforts, the iconoclasts of Mosul are inadvertently perpetuating their targets in memory. What kind of iconoclasm is it when, by making a world spectacle of their iconoclasm, many more people now know the 'idolatrous' images of Hatra and Assyria? By ISIL's own stated motives, this makes no sense. If you are going to do it properly learn from the despoilers of Göbekli Tepe who erased the culture so diligently that it took ten millennia for anyone to notice that the iconoclasm had even taken place. But this fresh wave of iconoclasm has hidden objectives [12.], the plundering and the posturing that makes it not real iconoclasm, rather a charade of it – even despite the incalculable material losses.

NOTES

 

1. iraqinews.com/features/urgent-isil-destroys-mosque-biblical-jonah-prophet-yunus

 

2. youtube.com/watch?v=9QUZEPqh3rs

 

3. bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-31759555

 

4. gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/assessing-the-damage-at-the-mosul-museum-part-2-the-sculptures-from-hatra

 

5. Natalie May (Ed.) Iconoclasm and Text Destruction in the Ancient Near East and Beyond, University of Chicago (2012), pp.12-18

6. Op. Cit. p. 40

7. Klaus Schmidt, 'Göbekli Tepe - the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs', Documenta Praehistorica XXXVII (2010), p. 246

 

8. Caroline Malone & Simon Stoddart (Eds.), 'Ritual failure and the temple collapse of prehistoric Malta' in Ritual Failure: Archaeological Perspectives, Sidestone Press (2013), pp.70-80

 

9. duepassinelmistero.com/stelilunigiana.htm

 

10. pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2011/knocking-down-menhirs [LINK NO LONGER EXISTS]

11. http://phys.org/news/2011-06-island-broken-figurines.html

 

12.  iraqdailyjournal.com/story-z10439989